Much like a driver who ignores a stop sign at a side street and drives out into flowing traffic, whales can appear before you have a chance to react. The conditions on the water, the species of the whale, and the speed you are traveling all affect your ability to see a while in time to avoid it.
Choppy seas and strong glare off the water impede the ability to see a whale. Conversely, if you are on the water at dusk, dawn or at night, seeing a whale is quite difficult. A strong wind can disperse a whale’s blow before you see it. Then factor in the speed your boat is moving, if you are boating in these conditions, and you potentially diminish further your ability to see a whale.
The likelihood of seeing a whale varies from species to species and is influenced by their behavior. It is easy to see a group of feeding humpbacks or a ‘surface active group’ of North Atlantic right whales. But a single whale, especially one of a dark skin color that lacks a dorsal fin, like a right whale, or a species like the minke whale that barely breaks the surface when it breathes, is much harder to spot. Same goes for whales resting at the surface.
Can you spot the right whale in the photo below?
Where whales choose to break the surface to breathe is unpredictable. They may come up close to where they submerged. However, they can travel a long distance below the surface swimming for food. There is no fool-proof way to predict where they will surface. A boat’s sudden presence is not likely to change a whale’s decision to come up to breathe. Whales have surfaced under boats and tipped them over (YouTube: GOT THE HUMP: Tourist Terror As Boat Launches Into The Air After Striking Humpback Whale, Youtube: Rescued group speaks out after whale crashes into boat, sinking it) The same can be said for when a whale breaches, or leaps out of the water. There are documented cases of whales landing on boats when they do this (YouTube: New video shows whale breaching, landing on boat).
Just because you have never seen a whale, it does not mean they are not there. It is best to proceed with caution and assume that whales could be present at any moment. Having a dedicated lookout during your trip will give you the best chances of seeing a whale before you get too close.
Written by Bob Rocha, New Bedford Whaling Museum – Updated 8/14/2023